Ask most Steelers fans what they want to see improve in 2020, and the suggestions usually come back to something on offense.
Rushing offense. Passing offense. Red zone offense. Third down offense. Scoring offense.
None of those are wrong answers.
But if we talk about the defense specifically, for as good as it was in 2019, there are areas where it can improve: generating sacks and turnovers.
Just ask Mike Tomlin.
“It’s reasonable to expect us to improve in that area and to improve in all areas,” Tomlin insisted. “We have a young nucleus defensively, guys that have been here.”
At this point in the column, the writer pauses to double-check last year’s stats.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. They led the league in both categories (38 takeaways, 54 sacks) a season ago.
Interesting. Because last week I asked Tomlin how hard it would be to replicate those 2019 totals in sacks and takeaways. Now — with the vast majority of last year’s defensive depth chart returning— Tomlin thinks the unit can improve on both fronts this season.
“A lot has been written and said about the acquisition of Minkah (Fitzpatrick) and its impact,” Tomlin continued. “For him to have an offseason and a preseason in the position that he’s in, a guy who plays in the middle of the field largely for us, I think, is significant. We are excited about it.”
Fitzpatrick is obviously a key component of the equation. He’s got an uncanny nose for turnovers. But for as much as he finds the ball, the ball finds him. Remember, three of Fitzpatrick’s five interceptions as a Steeler last year were on tipped passes intended for receivers targeted elsewhere on the field. One of his fumble recoveries happened in Cincinnati off a strip by Devin Bush — after 22-yard gain by Tyler Boyd.
Another occurred on a weird bounce when Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff was hit as he threw the ball.
Turnovers are fickle. The year prior, the Steelers had an AFC low of 15 takeaways, while still generating 52 sacks (tied for the NFL lead with Kansas City).
Along with Fitzpatrick’s acquisition — and perhaps a little extension of good luck from 2019 — Tomlin says he’s banking on even more takeaways in 2020 because of how the team plans and practices.
“It’s something we try to bring to our daily work and every drill it is that we do,” Tomlin said. “The ball awareness that allows us to produce the things that you mentioned and to come in great condition and to play with great physicality and hustle. It’s a cultural thing for us. We respect the process of building it.”
That’s great. But as Fitzpatrick himself has said, opposing offenses ceased testing the middle of the field when he was out there because of his fast-developing reputation for taking away the football.
The last seven weeks of the season he had just one pass-defensed and no interceptions.
“We are going to be challenged in that area in the same way that everyone is,” Tomlin said. “We are going to work our tails off to produce the outcome that you mentioned because it’s a significant component of us playing great defense as it is anyone, the ability to take the ball away and to spend a significant amount of time on the sidelines defines dominant defense.”
For his part, veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward had a different take on where the Steelers can improve defensively this fall.
“We’ve got to be a better run-stopping defense,” Heyward said. “Those are things we can be better at. If we can continue with the turnovers and sacks, that would be great. But also fourth quarter scoring. The last couple of games, critical drives, fourth quarter scoring played a big role.”
Heyward is on the money on both fronts there. The Steelers were only 14th against the run in 2019 at 109.6 yards allowed per contest. But they averaged 146 yards against over the last three games of the season. They were also outscored 25-0 in the four quarters of those games.
All were defeats. That December collapse cost the previously 8-5 Steelers a playoff spot.
I’m leaning toward Heyward’s stance on this one. The clay seems to be there to mold a rush defense that’s at least three to four spots better in the NFL rankings. And if the offense is better with Ben Roethlisberger’s return, that should alleviate the fourth quarter burden on the offensive side of the ball.
I suppose Tomlin’s forecast isn’t insane. With Bud Dupree in a contract year, Stephon Tuitt returning, and T.J. Watt in his prime, sure. The Steelers could be right back at the top when it comes to sacks.
I’d have to assume some regression after last year’s lofty turnover total, though.
But if the unit can answer Heyward’s call to action by getting off the field more quickly in a conventional fashion, maybe we won’t notice a slight dip in those two “splash play” categories all that much.
If they don’t? Well, then Tomlin better be right.